Journalists at Honolulu's Civil Beat have probably gotten used to the platinum-haired man who comes in twice a week, parks himself and his laptop in an open common area of the newsroom, speaks up with questions and offers context now and then.

That's Ron Hochuli.

He's the intern.

He's also 72.

Both he and the newsroom are figuring out how a retired community member with stints in banking, education, philosophy (he was a Catholic monk for a bit) and even a stab at local politics can bring that experience to an internship that benefits all of them.

Ron Hochuli. (Photo courtesy Ron Hochuli)
Ron Hochuli. (Photo courtesy Ron Hochuli)

If it works out, they'll launch a new program called Kupuna Fellows.

"Kupuna in Hawaii means revered elders," said Patti Epler, Civil Beat's editor and general manager. "It's a very common word here."

But a retiree scoring an internship in an unfamiliar field is a very uncommon arrangement (unless you're in Hollywood).

Here's how the whole thing got started.

Ron for mayor

Some journalists at Civil Beat, which recently became a nonprofit, knew their future intern as a source, not a co-worker.

Hochuli made headlines this year when he ran for mayor. Last month, as Epler writes for Civil Beat, he stopped by a community event and asked if he could be an unpaid intern.

Epler, not a big fan of citizen journalism, wasn't interested. A few days later, Hochuli got back in touch. He'd enrolled in an online journalism course called "Journalism for Engaged Citizens."

He was taking this seriously, Epler realized, so she decided to give him a shot.

"He's lived here 48 years, and he's worked with or for lots of people who are very key players in the community," she said. "Just having him sit at the table in the newsroom, I've noticed that our reporters are stopping by and grabbing a cup of coffee with him."

Hochuli is able to offer community knowledge that many in the newsroom are too young to have learned. He's also a steady presence in a community where people rarely put down roots for long, said Todd Simmons, Civil Beat's opinion editor.

"He's jumping in with abandon," Simmons said.

Hochuli, who spent 25 years managing money at Merrill Lynch, has a tremendous work ethic, Simmons said, has taken notes at two city council meetings and has learned to shoot video. He's digging into affordable housing issues and brings insights into the newsroom that aren't already there.

"It's that layer of expertise and senior experience built on a lifetime in the private sector that he's bringing to bear on our coverage," Simmons said.

And benefits for the newsroom are benefits for the community, too, Epler said.

"We'll have a richer, deep understanding of the issues, and we'll be able to pass that on to readers."

Ron for contributor

Hochuli's in his fourth week as Civil Beat's newest intern and his second week of journalism class. He's learning about attribution, verification and, in the newsroom, how to shoot a video blog.

He has always viewed journalists as guardians of the people. He sees Civil Beat's journalism as independent and balanced, and he wanted to learn to better challenge his own views.

"What I get out of it personally is a sense of being able to contribute," he said on Thursday before heading to take notes at a zoning meeting. "It kind of legitimized my interests, and I'm getting help in looking at our community in a disciplined way. It helps me to be sure I'm balanced in my thoughts, in my conclusions."

It's also a way to stay productive, said Hochuli, who's an active outrigger canoe paddler. So far, he's entered data into a database, attended City Council meetings and spent time researching affordable housing. He's also learned quickly by working with Anthony Quintano, Civil Beat's engagement editor.

He approached Hochuli as someone who had the opportunity to get ahead, not somebody who was left behind.

Many journalists have a tendency to write first, produce multimedia later. So Quintano introduced him to video blogging and challenged him to give it a try. Hochuli's already come back at him with more ideas.

Resistance to change is an issue for journalists and newsrooms everywhere, Quintano said, regardless of age.

"I think it’s great to have an example, it's great to have someone his age who’s willing and open-minded enough to learn new things."

Ron for fellow

Civil Beat already has a robust paid internship program for college seniors or recent grads. They come in with a foundation in journalism and maybe even a little newsroom experience. Hochuli doesn't have those things.

But all that he does bring has caused editors to wonder if this couldn't work as another kind of model. The challenge now for Civil Beat is finding enough work for Hochuli and any future fellows they bring on. Not clerk work. Not envelope-stuffing work. Epler would like to see them develop a more structured program that makes it worth the newsroom's time as well as the retirees'.

It's also another thing to manage with a very small staff.

"Really if you just throw open the doors to anybody who is retired, you could end up with more supply than demand," Simmons said. "So we want to be careful about that and to provide an experience for them that's really beneficial and instructional, but at the same time to make sure it's mutually beneficial."

And so far with Hochuli, that's how it's unfolding. Simmons thinks places such as Florida or Arizona where many retire to might benefit from this kind of newsroom/retiree collaboration.

Hochuli thinks other retired professionals might have something to offer, too.

"It doesn't cost Civil Beat money, yet you're going to have different life experiences looking at things," he said.

For now, he wants to tag along with reporters at Civil Beat and learn how they know to ask such focused questions. He's in awe of their ability to communicate clearly. And he's still learning.

But he's not tweeting. Yet.

"I wasn't even on Facebook before I ran for mayor," he said. "No, I'm not on Twitter. Maybe it's something I should do."